18F Three (and a half) Months In

When I left my last job the company threw one last happy hour for me—a typical send-off for that firm. While we were mingling around the bar my co-workers were asking me how I was feeling about the move. Earlier that week someone on my account asked me if I felt any “trepidation” about going to the GSA and for the most part people were supportive and congratulatory.

At the happy hour, though, one of the company’s newer employees told my wife something interesting: “Unlike most people,” he said, “I actually became more conservative during college.” He went on to say he was an economics major and became enchanted with incentives and determined that, lacking them federal employees have no reason to do good work. And then he came right out and told me he thought that the ideals behind 18F were good and geniune but eventually I was going to be working on something great and a GS15 would show up and arbitrarily end it.

He basically told me I was absolutely, undoubtedly, and quickly headed for
Kafkaesque disappointment.

That line stuck with me on my first day at the GSA, though, because it wasn’t just him who said things like this. The colleague who asked if I had any trepidations told me he spent a summer working for the GSA essentially inventorying the government issued furnituring for embassy residences. The details were a bit murky but I got the sense he didn’t take the job very seriously when the punchline turned out that a woman at one of the residences answered the door in her underwear. People would talk about our colleagues at the CFPB like they were riding out their careers, set for a life of doing nothing and getting paid to do it. I can’t count how many times I heard someone say our colleagues intentionally did shoddy work or had lower standards because they were government employees.

“That kind of work would never be tolerated if there was money at stake.”

That attitude was so pervasive that I was a bit nervous going into day one
that, despite all signs to the contrary, they were right. I was determined to
prove them wrong, and the incredibly talented, passionate team I work with has only fueled my conviction that public servants—be they teachers, software developers, or bank inspectors—are some of the most passionate, dedicated people in the workforce. If anything, I’ve had more GS15s tell us to keep up the great work than otherwise.

All this is to say, if you think bureaucracy is hard, you’re right. If you think bureaucracy can be used to unproductive ends, you’re right. But if you think it has to be that way and will never change: you’re flat wrong. The government is a big ship and it’s going to take more than one 18F to change it, but the progress we’ve made inside the GSA is real. We managed to hire a team of more than 70, take on a smattering of projects that are either live or in beta stage with more on their way. And it’s all being done by public servants.

To that colleague, incentives pretty much exclusively meant money: raises, bonuses, stock options, what have you. And that’s great but we do things every day that are not driven by earning more money. We are not all walking around with carrots in front of our faces and sticks at our back. At least in government, we’re driven by different motives: improving the lives of everyday Americans by making their interactions with government easier, more efficient, and with a greater chance of success motivates us. Saving taxpayer money motivates us. Disproving all the prejudices people have of government work motivates us. Who needs incentives to do that?